This is an origin story. If the Marvel and DC movies have taught us anything, surely it’s that the reasons why you do what you do depends an awful lot on where you’ve come from. And we all began swimming – even if you can’t remember it.
Somehow, I’ve found myself on a quest to swim 1000 metres in every pool I come across. I’m past 600 in and I won’t stop until I reach 1000. It seems inevitable. But if you’d seen me at school, it wouldn’t have seemed inevitable at all.
In school, I resisted swimming lessons and squads. For some reason, I made sure I competed every year at the school carnival and John Waters made sure he always beat me. With a name like that, infinitely more aquatic than Webb, I really didn’t stand a chance. I also didn’t stand a chance because I didn’t like squads. I didn’t practice much, turned up and flapped my arms around and every year, John Waters beat me. A little more effort on my part, a few more purposeful laps, and I needn’t have been relegated to 2nd place year after year. But that just didn’t seem necessary at the time. Cause and effect was still some future concept to me. Instead, I’d emerge dripping to be given the red ribbon, rather than the blue, while I silently mouthed, ‘Bugger.’
Yet, here I am desperate to be the first person to swim 1000 metres in 1000 pools. I’ve swum them all over the world. I’ve diverted the family road trip by no less than 8 hours in order to conquer a new pool. I’ve done it freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke, doggy paddle, even side-stroke in memory of my mum. (She’s not dead, and nor was she then. She was asleep in the car at the time. It had been a long drive). I’ve even invented my own stroke which I call ‘the torpedo’ – a tricky stroke, it has to be said, attempted by few (only me as far as I know) and mastered by none (including myself) where the brave/foolish swimmer alternates between freestyle and backstroke, spinning through the water with every second stroke. A bit like a torpedo, maybe. A slow, not very accurate one. If you can finish one lap of ‘the torpedo’ without throwing up from the nauseating dizziness of it all, you’re doing well.* I’ve swum in water I couldn’t see the bottom of. I’ve swum using only one arm (post-shoulder surgery. Not swimming related, in case you’re wondering). And the pools all added up. When I began, there was no Google Maps, no iPhone, and even more extraordinary, no selfies, if you can imagine such an innocent time. I navigated with a street directory on my lap, criss-crossing every major city and small town I visited to find the blue oases.
There are a lot of swimming blogs around. I follow none of them. I’m not interested – still – in improving my times or in finding out, ‘The 11 things you’re doing wrong in your pre-swim warm-up.’ I will not click on ‘How to un-fog your goggles.’
But I am interested in places and travel and discovery and ticking things off a list. 1000 pools is a long list and it’s a motivating one. Countless times, in a foreign land, a foreign town, I’ve jumped in a taxi, thrown my eager Speedos onto the seat next to me and handed the driver a slip of paper with an address on it. I’m not particularly good at swimming most of the time. I rarely get into a rhythm. Usually the following thought bubbles into my mind, ‘What on earth are you doing? This is insufferably painful. Go home.’ Swimming is also not especially social, which goes against my nature. I like people. I’d class myself borderline insatiably extrovert. I know there are squads and swimming clubs, but when you walk down to the local pool to do your laps typically one enjoys no sense of teamwork or esprit de corps. I routinely speak to no-one. It seems slightly icky to strike up a conversation with a stranger when you’re wet and wearing almost nothing. (That said, I have a very vivid memory of one particular pool noted for its clientele’s confidently casual approach to nudity where I witnessed one chap, wearing nothing but a, well, nothing at all, but holding a comb. He was standing opposite a large mirror combing his hair when he was greeting by a similarly nude gentlemen, without even a comb, calling out from the opposite end of the change room with a loud, ‘Hey, Bob!’ This comb-less (and everything else-less) gent then walked all easy as you like the entire length of the room, straight past my stunned self, so they could have a fine old natter, face-to-face, nose to nose, as it were. So clearly some folk can manage it. Maybe those folk who are borderline extrovert with chlorine-addled brains? In which case, I’ve got to be careful.)
So, how did I fall into this Great Quest? Why take the plunge over and over again? As with many an epic tale, it began in my youth. When I was 23, before I knew there was a Robbie Williams, I wanted to be Robbie Williams. I spent two years in London playing gigs and pursuing an ultimately futile dream and rarely seeing the sun. I never swam once. When I returned to Sydney, the scales fell from my eyes. You couldn’t imagine a greater contrast. London in mid-winter, wet and grey. Sydney in mid-summer, sunshine reflecting off everything, the deep pink bougainvillea vines, the glass windows on the harbour ferries, the white gulls and pelicans hanging above the beaches, and dazzling on the water. There was sparkling water everywhere. The harbour, the ocean and the hundreds of swimming pools. I was like a freed man. The waters of Eden were at my feet waiting for me. I had been dying of thirst and never even realised it.
I mark the start of The Quest at Fairlight Harbour Pool, not far from Manly (that’s the pool at the top of this article – not bad, is it?). I was working nights – still trying to be a rock and roll star during the day – so I drove against the morning commuters to this gorgeous tidal pool and immersed myself in salt water, sand and surf, floating, floating, floating while everyone else was rushing, rushing, rushing for the train or playing dodgems in the traffic.
Here’s what I discovered that day. Water changes you. It heals you, literally supports you, caresses you and tingles every nerve on the surface of your skin in a way nothing else can.
Let me ask you a question, have you ever not felt better after a swim? Have you ever not felt refreshed? I haven’t. I’ve always felt, not to be too poetic about it, a sense of rebirth. From water we came (Do you remember floating in your mother’s tummy? A part of you does). The more bracing the water, the more exhilarating as your blood flashes out to try and smother the cold and your heart pumps and pumps and pumps. Let me tell you, you know you’re alive.
I’m all for walks in the wilderness or cycling through mountains and running city streets but nowhere can you surrender the same way as you can in water. You can’t control water. You never know how it’s going to embrace you and how it’s going to move across your body. Maybe that’s why it’s so enlivening – it never feels the same. Every time you immerse yourself in water, your millions of miniscule skin sensors are captivated in a million different ways. You’ve probably heard you’re 70% water, or 80%, or 99%, or whatever it is. I don’t know if that’s relevant to anything at all but it seems to me that when you’re back in the water, well, isn’t that where you’re meant to be? You can play in the water your whole life. It will always surprise you and refresh you.
Back to my confident friend with the comb (and his friend without a comb). I think they were onto something. I’m grateful that they didn’t waltz outside and swim ahead of me in my lane, dressed as they weren’t. But as I said at the start, we were all born swimming and not wearing much. We began life in water and we didn’t come out in speedos and goggles. I think those gentlemen knew that. They felt very comfortable in their skins. Maybe that was their way of re-capturing that lost innocence. I’m sympathetic.
I have a lot to thank Fairlight pool for. The experience was so far removed from my childhood chlorine-saturated aquatic memories that it’s not too much so say, from a swimming point of view, I was reborn that day.
* I might explain in more detail at another time the wonders of this currently unseen but surely soon-to-be-Olympic-event swimming stroke. A particular touch of genius, I feel, are the protocols around the beginning of the race. According to the bylaws which I shall shortly pen, the swimmers begin as per freestyle or breaststroke, that is, on the blocks facing the water. However, at the sound of the gun, the brave competitors dive forwards (and here’s the magical part) performing a half spin mid-air entering the water on their back facing the ceiling. You can imagine the TV audience rising from their seats at the wonder of it. That’s if the swimmers can actually pull it off. I never have. They then begin spinning their way merrily down the pool trying not to throw up.
Fairlight pool was #1 on the author’s quest to swim 1000 pools around the world.